Committee says public works model successful

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A committee is recommending the town and village continue their joint public works venture under a new agreement that issues guidance on how to eventually achieve a fully-consolidated department.

The committee, which has met six times since June, plans to submit its recommendations in a final report to the boards early next month.

“The original intent of the public works consolidation has come true. It went really well,” Elaine Sopchak, a trustee who chaired the group, said. “We found no problems whatsoever.”

The current public works memorandum of understanding called for an appraisal in its third year, prompting the selectboard and trustees to appoint a five-person committee with two officials from each and an outside party.

The MOU says the town will fund the village’s highway budget and recommend operations without directly supervising the department.

Town public works director Dennis Lutz suggested specific criteria earlier this year, like whether the model has reduced costs and if the departments provided timely service. He and village superintendent Rick Jones attended four of the six meetings.

Sopchak said the committee’s numbers show the MOU led to minor savings — paving bids were 6 percent lower due to shared bids — though overall budgets haven’t decreased.

She said consolidation shouldn’t be expected to bear significant savings like those seen in the shared manager model.

“Rather, we’re going to bend the curve of increases and costs,” she said, in addition to spreading tax impact across the town – the goal of the shared services initiative since it began three years ago.

Still, the committee identified some future efficiencies, Sopchak said, like a singular staffer to handle all service calls since no system uniformly tracks complaints across the two communities.

Though the town’s purchase of the See-Click-Fix app last year has allowed both department heads to track problems in real-time, they estimate only a third of requests are entered this way.

The rest include phone calls, emails, walk-ins or contacts through other departments. Only the town has a dedicated staffer to track the requests.

This made it difficult to judge whether the departments provided timely service; meeting minutes show the committee gauged customer satisfaction mostly by the lack of complaints residents have shared with elected officials.

Heeding to concerns from residents during budget season, the committee also will recommend Lutz provide a more detailed explanation of the village highway budget item, which the town currently sees as a pass-through.

While the two departments have operated under the MOU for two years now, they’ve still maintained much of their individuality.

Daily tasks are similar as department heads absorbed most of the changes, there remains no clear authority across borders over staff and the town carries no weight in the village budget or spending.

Lutz, who spoke to the boards about the MOU earlier this year, suggested they move to a combined rolling stock and capital funds, since the town and village currently differ greatly in how capital projects are ranked and funded, making long-term planning difficult.

The committee will recommend merging the two funds, Sopchak said, noting it will likely  require further study.